OFWs: Abandoned in War Zones, Ignored at Home

Overseas Filipino workers are dubbed as “modern-day heroes” by government. Rightly so, because their remittances prop up the economy by bringing in the much-needed dollars and stimulating domestic consumer spending. They are also “modern-day heroes” because they risk life and limb just to provide a decent income for their families. The sad part about being heroes is that they are left to fend for themselves when disaster strikes, just like the wars in the Middle East. And in spite of news releases by government announcing various forms of assistance allotted to them, the reality on the ground is that many among them have not received what is due them because of “lack of funds.”


Part 1: Begging to Be Back Home from Lebanon

Since 1994, Baby Sabado’s family has been caught in the middle of the war between Moro rebels and the government’s armed forces in conflict-ridden Barangay (village) Pisan, Kabacan, North Cotabato.

They had their worst sleepless nights in 1999 during the Estrada administration’s all-out war against the Moro rebels.

At that time, they could hardly eat. Most of the time, they could only peep from their windows to know the direction of missiles and bombs. During intensified bombing operations, they would hide in the underground room of their neighbor.

Aware of the even harder life in evacuation centers, the Sabado family opted to stay at home. “’Kahit naman evacuation center binombomba rin,” she said. (Even evacuation centers are being bombed.)

Most of all, Baby feared most her husband’s risky job as a member of the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU) in their place. “’Pag naabutan sila ng putukan, dadapa lang sila.” (When there is fighting, they would just hit the ground.)

If not on duty, her husband looks after their carabao (water buffalo) in the farm. Baby admitted they are living a very hard life. “Mahirap ang buhay, si mister nakikisosyo lang sa anihan.” (Life is hard, my husband only joins in the harvesting.)

As a result, Baby decided to work as a domestic helper abroad to help augment the family income.

She first applied for Hong Kong in 2004. But she had to ask the agency to refund her placement fee when her husband was diagnosed with Hepatitis B. She put on hold her job hunting until he got well.

Helpless in Lebanon

Despite the dangers of working in Lebanon, Baby grabbed the opportunity to be deployed there last May.

She worked in a hotel and restaurant in Beirut, getting only US$200 monthly instead of the US$2,000 monthly salary stipulated in the contract. She served and cooked in the hotel’s restaurant, did the laundry and ironing for the guests and cleaned their rooms.

Due to her heavy workload, she and her companion would sometimes work from 5 a.m. until 3 a.m. the next day. This means that they sometimes get to sleep for only two hours.

She complained that her employer’s daughter would sometimes lock them in the basement, thinking she and her Filipina co-worker were just sleeping there. But actually, she said they were doing the laundry and ironing clothes. There were also times when she was fed either dog food or bread.

Baby thought about asking for the Philippine embassy’s help. But she would receive the same answer from her Pinay co-worker, “kahit magreklamo, sasabihin lang sa’yo ‘sumunod ka na lang.’ Pera ang hinahanap natin.” (Even if you complain, they would only tell you to just follow orders. We are looking for money here.) Her colleague was proven right when she finally decided to go to the Philippine embassy.

Her situation worsened when Israel bombed central Beirut dawn of July 12. They could see the smoke when bombs would hit the targets.

After four days, her husband called her, advising her to return to Mindanao immediately because their four children are worried about her. But she was hesitant to run away since her employer held her passport.

When she learned that her employer’s family was arranging their visas for a trip to Italy, she realized that only the two of them would be left behind. There, she confronted her employer that she already wanted return to the Philippines. Her employer denied they have a plan to flee, telling her they will get through the war together.

Fearing what could happen to her during the attacks, Baby was also worried about her daughter who got sick.

She and her Filipina co-worker stopped working and lost their appetite. Because she was just on her second month, her employer’s daughter wanted her to pay back the expenses incurred for getting her services. Their employer, however, finally allowed them to go to the Philippine embassy.

To her surprise, she said, embassy personnel scolded them for leaving their employer, adding they can only return if their employer would allow them.

Anong unahin ko, pera o buhay ng anak ko?” said the angry OFW, adding that even foreigners staying in the hotel were starting to leave. (What will I prioritize, money or the life of my child?)

Baby went to the Miraculous Medal church on July 18 where the Philippine embassy processes the papers of OFWs who want to go home. She stayed there for five days. “Napakahirap, nakahiga na kami sa lupa, karton lang ang sapin, unan ang malaking bato na nasa ilalim ng puno. Pinagtatawanan na kami ng ibang foreigner doon pero wala kaming magawa dahil masikip sa loob,” she recalled. (It was very hard there. We slept on the ground with only pieces of carton box for a mattress and a stone under the tree for a pillow. Some foreigners laughed at us but we could not do anything because it was too crowded inside the church.)

Walang kain, walang tubig, walang ligo,” (No food, no water, no taking a shower.) she added. With only US$60 in her pocket, she could only buy water that costs US$5. “Minsan lugaw lang pagkain. Minsan sinasarahan pa kami ng pinto ng kitchen pag pupunta kami dun para humingi ng pagkain. Itinutulog na lang namin ang gutom,” she lamented. (Sometimes we only had gruel for food. There were times when the kitchen staff closed the door on us when we went there to ask for food. We just slept so as not to feel the hunger pangs.)

She also noticed that even if she had her passport and she had been there already for a few days, some OFWs allegedly without proper documents who came later, would be served first.

Kundi ka malakas, matagal. Kagaya sa akin maghihintay ka talaga,” she said. (If you did not have the connections within the embassy, the processing of papers could take long, as in my case.)

She spent another four days in Damascus, Syria. She had the same experience. “Nakapila ako nang sinabihan ako na walang silbi yung pinagpipilahan ko.” (I fell in line but I was told that falling in line was pointless.)

Baby finally was brought back home on July 28.

Neglected at home?

Given that she was financially broke, she stayed at a friend’s house in Manila while processing her ticket to Mindanao with the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). Her friend also gave her transportation money so that she could follow up her documents at the OWWA.

Labor Secretary Arturo D. Brion announced that a package of assistance that include training coupons will be given to OFWs who have returned from Lebanon. The other assistance being extended to the returnees also include the provision of temporary shelter, counseling, medical services, overseas job opportunities for family members of Lebanon evacuees or re-deployment of the repatriates, and transportation from Manila to their respective provinces.

But Sabado had to beg and cry at the OWWA so that she could be served first and be given a place ticket since her daughter was still confined in a hospital in North Cotabato.

Kung may pera lang ako di na ‘ko hihingi ng tulong sa kanila,” said the teary-eyed mother who even thought of jumping from OWWA’s window just to get the office’s attention. (If I only had money, I would not ask them for help.) She added that OWWA only wanted to shoulder their boat fares.

Ubos na daw pera ‘dun,” she quoted the OWWA staff as saying. (They have no more funds.) But officials of the OWWA and Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) denied this, saying that they have the funds to repatriate the OFWs back to their provinces. “May mga kasamahan na nga na nagalit na lang, hindi na humingi ng tulong.” (I even had colleagues who got so angry that they did not ask for help anymore.)

Baby also asked for livelihood assistance. “Maghintay ka,” was the only response to her by OWWA personnel. (You wait.) She planned to manage a small sari-sari (variety) store at home to augment her husband’s earnings from rice harvests. As of this writing, Baby said that she has not received any assistance.

She was able to travel on Aug. 6 back to Pisan because of the money she borrowed from friends to add to that sent by her husband.

If she would not receive any assistance from the government and if her husband would still allow her, Baby would still want to work abroad despite her harrowing experience in Lebanon. According to her, that is the only way to provide her family a more comfortable life. (Bulatlat.com)

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